Ever since my calling in Young Women’s ended a year ago, I have enjoyed the lessons on Joseph Smith that we are studying in Relief Society and Priesthood. I appreciate this attempt to understand our founding prophet’s life within a historical context, and, until recently, I felt touched and awed at hearing the prophet’s own recorded voice. What changed? Well, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasn’t actually hearing his voice.
Although I knew that Joseph Smith’s writing is far more grammatically troubled than what we find in the manual, I never thought to question the surface accuracy of what I was reading in the manual. The manual mentions that it has standardized some of the writing, but until I actually compared the originals to the standardized manual, I didn’t realize how much was being altered or lost in my persepctive of the prophet. Even though the standardized letters still touch me, my faith is affirmed far more when I can glimpse Joseph Smith as a person who struggles with both his view of the world and his lack of formal education. The standardizations block my access to these important parts of Joseph Smith’s character, presenting me with a man who is far more polished and poetic than the Joseph Smith I see in his own writing. The modern insertion of periods, semi-colons, and commas where there are none potentially changes his meaning.
But the biggest problem with the manual might not be standardization: it also confuses words that come from Jospeh directly and mere recordings by other present parties. The manual presents words that are in fact only attributed to Joseph Smith in quotation marks, giving the impression to the reader who doesn’t check the footnotes that he actually said them.
I can appreciate why the Church might want to standardize the language for ease of reading, but such standardization and confusing/mis-attributions present an inaccurate portrait of our prophet. We could preserve both ease of use and authenticity if we displayed the original wording, the standardized transcription, and the citations all side-by-side. Given the impressive work being done on the Joseph Smith Papers, there is no reason why our most studied manuals cannot be held to higher standards.
As an example, compare the following original letter (picked at random), which the Church has wonderfully posted and transcribed on its website, to the excerpt found in the manual:
Oct 13 1832
P Pearl Street House N Y
My Dear Wife
This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of n New Y- the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing [of] to eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are are calculated to mak[e] men comfortable wise and happy therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased only aganst man is the anger of the Lord Kindled because they Give him not the Glory therefore their iniquities shall [be] visited upon their heads and their works shall be burned up with unquenchable fire the inequity of the people is printed in every countinance and nothing but the dress of the people makes them look fair and butiful all is deformity their is something in every countinance that is disagreable with few exceptions Oh how long Oh Lord Shall this order of things exist and darkness cover the Earth and gross darkness cover the people after beholding all that I had any desire to behold I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind and behold the thaughts of home of Emma and Julia rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for [a] moment to be with them my breast is filld with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a Husband and could I be with you I would tell you many things yet when I reflect upon this great city like Ninevah not desearning their right hand from their left yea more then two hundred [thousand] souls my bowels is filled with compasion towards them and I am determined to lift up my voice in this City and leave the Event with God who holdeth all things in his hands and will not suffer an hair of our heads unnoticed to fall to the ground there is but few Cases of the cholra in this City now and i you should see the people you would not that know that they people had ever heard of the [cholra] I hope you will excuse me for writting this letter so soon after w[r]iting for I feel as if I wanted to [say] you say something to you to comfort you in your beculier triel and presant affliction I hope God will give you strength that you may not faint I pray God to soften the hearts of those arou[n]d you to be kind to you and take [the] burdon of[f] your shoulders as much as posable and not afflict you I feel for you for I know you[r] state and that others do not but you must cumfort yourself knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you hav[e] one true and living friend on Earth your Husband
Joseph Smith Jr.
“This day I have been walking through the most splendid part of the city of New York. The buildings are truly great and wonderful, to the astonishing of every beholder. . . . After beholding all that I had any desire to behold, I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind; and behold, the thoughts of home, of Emma and Julia, rush upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them. My breast is filled with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a husband, and could I be with you I would tell you many things…
“I feel as if I wanted to say something to you to comfort you in your peculiar trial and present affliction [Emma was pregnant at the time]. I hope God will give you the strength that you may not faint. I pray God to soften the hearts of those around you to be kind to you and to take the burden off your shoulders as much as possible and not afflict you. I feel for you, for I know your state and that others do not, but you must comfort yourself knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you have one true and living friend on earth, your husband” (241).
Update: JNS has an earlier post on this topic here.